Monthly Archives: August 2011

A Gaming Education: Limbo

Limbo is out now on PC. An opportune time, then, to buy it for my PlayStation 3.

It’s the controls, see. Apparently they’re rubbish with a keyboard, and I don’t have a joypad to plug in, so I had no choice but to brave the lawless wastes of the PlayStation Store (you basically just shout your credit card details at Sony now, and hope no thieves are listening) to get my hands on this lugubrious, elegiac puzzle-platformer from developers Playdead.

It was more bloody expensive than on Steam as well! Granted, not as much as the PC version and a PC joypad would have been, but still a full third as much again for the base game. Or … it was £9.99 rather than £6.99. Is that a third as much again? Seven into ten … carry the four … multiply out the brackets …

Maths is not my strong suit. But my point is you’ve gotta pay extra to play on console, and I have a sneaking suspicion this is because Sony demand tithes in return for access to their exclusive bummers’ club. Tithes and HUMAN SACRIFICE. Or just tithes.

Well, how interesting. I just Googled “tithes”, and the word literally means “tenths”, referring to the ten-percent contribution from earnings voluntarily paid to an organisation. So what would a tenth of … £9.99 divided by £6.99 be then? Or is it £6.99 times by a factor of one-tenth, plus the difference of £9.99 minus remainder two?

According to my calculations, Playdead have had to pay Sony … sixty billion to the power of n dollars to host their game on the PlayStation Network. Those poor souls.

BUT WHAT OF THE GAME ITSELF? I hear you cry. Yes we’re getting there. Enjoy the perambulation whydontcha? Rushing yourself to the grave, you are.

Welllllllllllllll. Although Limbo looks genetically formulated to tickle my fancy, I’m sad to report that my fancy remained decidedly untickled. No, incorrect. Limbo did tickle my fancy. It’s just every stimulation was accompanied by a forceful elbow to the balls.

This is a conflicted game. On the one hand, it wants to create an oppressive, lonely mood with its monochrome visuals and delicate ambient sounds, contrasting the vulnerability of the young boy you control against a bleak landscape, evoking an ethereal sense of an overwhelming, uncaring universe.

On the other hand, it enjoys dropping a banana peel beneath your feet and laughing as you break your back.

The challenges in Limbo are designed with a philosophy for completion you might term trial-and-error. I would term it the-developers-are-dicks.

Example: one room you have to traverse, filled with pressure pads. Some of the pads kill you if you stand on them, others kill you if you don’t stand on them. There’s no way to know which are which beforehand. You just have to barrel through, dying again and again, until you memorise the pattern.

This is essentially how you advance through most of the game. You watch your character being eviscerated, beheaded, crushed and impaled, by traps impossible to anticipate, and you restart and you restart, and gradually you make progress.

I can see why Playdead thought it would work. The idea of this mounting pile of deaths towering over you, draining any goodwill from the world, sounds like a clever way of ensuring the tone is engendered as much by the player’s actions as by the melancholic visuals and affecting ambient score.

That’s not how it plays though. For a start, the mocking nature of the traps feels distinctly personal, distinctly human, the cruel hands of the designers evident moving behind the scenes, destroying the illusion of a detached yet hostile land.

And for the deaths to mean anything they would have to hold consequence. In reality all that happens is you respawn at the start of the same screen and try again. While the reload time is annoyingly slow, and many puzzles require some labourious set-up before the actual obstacle is faced — pulling a crate up a slope and rushing up ladders as it slides back, say — the result is irritation, more than anything else. As a punishment from a brooding world perhaps set on the edge of Hell, irritation is hardly the most shocking of outcomes.

All of which is a shame, because under that irritation is a haunting, majestic game. The section known to veterans as That Fucking Spider Bit is one of the most terrifying, revolting, inspired moments in gaming. The vignette where you negotiate a deep pool by climbing across the corpses of dead children is shocking and powerful. The ambiguous minimalism of the story allows you to read just as much into it as you wish.

So it’s a pity to see the mournful tone bulldozed by a loud yet prosaic sense of frustration, a wave of anger that threatens to engulf all the subtleties the game works so hard to inspire.

By the hundredth time you see your boy torn apart on the blades of a buzzsaw positioned in exactly the wrong place, you start to wonder what you can have done to the designers in a past life to deserve this abuse.

Less Limbo, then, and more Purgatory. I hope I’ve worked off my sins come Playdead’s next release.

[To see the conflict at the heart of Limbo given voice by two of games journalism’s brightest rising stars, I recommend this post on the quaint Rock, Paper, Shotgun. That “Kieron” fellow sure swears a lot. Can’t see him making much headway as a videogame critic.]

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Gaming in Other Boys’ Bedrooms

It begins in your friend Dom’s house, when you are five years old. You are together in Dom’s attic bedroom, the details of which you cannot now picture clearly, because your memories have intertwined and fused with images from the first Home Alone film, which you watched many times with Dom during these years.

Friends’ bedrooms are alien worlds, fascinating in their glimpses of other lives, the subtly different moral and aesthetic preferences of your families made incarnate in carpets, bedspreads, the arrangement of bookcases, the variety of toys …

The toys in Dom’s room are great. They have been handed down from his older brother, and as such all lack breastplates or spring-loaded missiles or caterpillar tracks — but in your eyes this just adds to their totemic beauty.

There is the Millenium Falcon, no windshield over the cockpit; a Ninja Turtles action figure: Leonardo, missing katana; even a replica of the fire station base from Ghostbusters, pink flakes peeling from the roof where homemade slime has been poured in and left to dry.

You sit for endless stretches of time arranging the figures into opposing armies, then arguing over which of them are the Good Guys, and who gets to play as the Good Guys, and whether Lion-O could beat He-Man in a fight.

And then one day there is something else. Under Dom’s small television, on a mount halfway up one wall: a robust grey box with the word “Nintendo” written on it in red. Dom calls it his “NES”, which he pronounces “Nez”, not “N-E-S”.

At this age, all toys are magnificent. Anything plastic, with poseable joints or whirring mechanisms or appendages shaped like bazookas, is brilliant. But this NES is a whole new kind of magic.

You sit with Dom on the end of his bed and fall forwards into the mesmerising, primordial worlds of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda and Duck Hunt. You feel like an explorer stepping foot on an undiscovered continent. There is a profound elegance to the archetypal, symbolic lands of pixels you charge through, a deep allure to the evocative bleeps emanating from the television’s speakers.

These afternoons in Dom’s room, in a dimension separated from the rest of the house by six miles of stairs, are your first taste of videogames. You feel, it is fair to say, an instant attraction.

The years that follow see you drift apart from Dom, who is in another class at school and moves in different groups. But you find other friends, other bedrooms.

There is Kev, three doors up from you, whose mother evidently cleans his room when he’s out. It is just too neat. There is a Star Fox poster on the wall, and another poster with something to do with guns and roses, which you don’t understand. There is Kev’s Game Gear, packed pristinely in its carry case, its batteries that you have to take out after each use to prevent them melting and dripping through the floor, like the toxic blood in Alien. And there is a Mega Drive, Fifa International Soccer and NBA Jam and Cool Spot stacked in boxes underneath.

Jim lives on the next street along. He is part of the other gang, your sworn enemies, but one day you have a territorial war and it transpires one of their members has a drive that’s great for footie, and Kev has a Mitre football, so a truce is called for the Greater Good. You play Star Wars with Jim on his Master System, spending whole days on the rubbish Tatooine level, always hoping to reach the fabled bit in the manual where it promises you can fly an X-Wing, always getting killed trying to deactivate the tractor beam on the Death Star, always having to restart again from the very beginning.

In Year 5 there is Flint, captain of your roller hockey team. His room is a marshland of crumpled clothes and VHS tapes and broken axles from Bauer Fx3s. You watch the video of Terminator one morning, then spend the afternoon playing Jurassic Park on his SNES, a low-level anxiety pinning you both to your seats as you anticipate the inevitable moment when a velociraptor will leap out and devour you whole.

Then comes secondary school. You and your friends are eleven, as grown-up as it is possible to get. You wear Lynx deodorant and compare armpit hair in the showers after P.E., and swear with a determination that makes up for in ferocity what it lacks in nuance. You watch the Year 9 girls walking past, their hips undulating hypnotically, the straps of their shoulder bags running between actual, honest-to-goodness breasts, and the world is yours for the taking.

But there is also a floundering, gasping self-doubt, a gnawing fear, a burning desire to belong.

You all have N64s, and weekends bring group sleepovers at your friend Malik’s. They are bitter struggles for acceptance. Your status for the week ahead depends entirely on your performance in Snowboard Kids, Top Gear Rally, Extreme-G, Vigilante 8, Bomberman 64. Play badly and you become a pariah, suffering ritual humiliations, insults so corrosive they threaten to sear through your flesh.

Sometimes a tiny thing within you snaps, faintly, and you put down your controller and go off to read N64 Magazine in the corner, sick of the caterwauling, the venomous jabs. You feel yourself to be separate somehow, disconnected from your friends, and you are hounded by a torturing loneliness.

Other times you stand tall on the top level of Stack, armed only with a PP7, every screen but yours sanguine, and when the timer ticks down you’re awarded Most Professional and Most Deadly in the same round. You drink in the victory, bask in the knowledge that, although you may be distrusted for your idiosyncrasies, you are respected for your prowess with a pistol.

The years pass, and acne arrives, and the botched conversations with girls in your class accumulate. Neither school nor home are happy places. You feel as if you have become dislodged in a way you don’t understand, and are aware of a gradual yet inexorable sensation of slipping downwards. You still game, all the time, except now it feels less like exploration, and more like escape.

Then comes a night in your own bedroom. A friend staying over. Your parents’ conversation rises through the floorboards, muffled, surreptitious. There is an element to the noise you do not like, some note that causes the blood to beat in your ears, yanks tight a knot in your stomach. You’ve got a sixth-sense for it, by now. Your friend is playing Mario Party and hasn’t noticed anything.

The voices raise in pitch, intensity. Hers becomes harried, corybantic; His is Danger. Your friend must know what’s going on now, though you’ve shifted on your top bunk so you can’t see him. On the television screen, Yoshi skips round a path on a giant birthday cake. Showers of coins burst forth.

The screaming reaches a crescendo, breaks. The walls rock with the force of a door slammed almost off its frame. Footsteps outside, fading into the night.

You lie there, skewered. You pretend to be asleep, though there’s no way you could be. Your friend plays a while longer, then turns the N64 off. You lie there for hours, and eventually the house grows silent, and dark. Your friend’s breathing becomes steady. You lie there and you lie there, waiting for returning footsteps, the reassuring fumble of the key in the lock. You decide to stay awake all night.

But then it’s the morning, and you realise you must have slept. Your friend is up already, playing the Frigate level on Goldeneye. You swing your legs over the bunk and jump down. You sit on the floor and watch the game. You don’t know what to say, how to start it off.

But after a while your friend gets lost looking for the engine room, so you tell him to turn around and go back down the stairs. You tell him not to shoot the computers in the engine room, because it’ll detonate the bomb. Then you say that was weird last night wasn’t it, and he says yeah, and you say it happens sometimes, and he says stay at my house anytime you like, the TV in my room is way bigger than this one anyway, and you say cool.

Then your friend shoots a hostage up the bum and the hostage jumps in the air and you both laugh. And you know then that things might be pretty fucked up, but they’ll probably turn out alright in the end.

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On Pauses and Steps Forward

I’m not going to be writing my pigeon articles for a while. In light of the widespread rioting and looting in our capital and around other parts of the country over the last few days, it just feels grossly insensitive for me to produce fiction based, in large part, upon rioting and looting. I thought about going ahead with the pieces and curbing some of the excesses the game presents, but playing Grand Theft Auto with its excesses curbed is pretty patently a pointless activity. I also thought about going down the balls-out, meta route, and discussing the riots and my feelings about them as I played. Then I thought again, and realised this would be a really crass thing to do.

I understand some of you probably hold the opinion that we should get on with enjoying videogames as we always have, that the opportunity for play is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society, that gaming together will bring us together. But I can’t write about stealing cars and smashing windows and beating people up right now. Not with so many friends and family members in London. Not with games journalists I admire posting jokes on Twitter that bravely yet barely mask the obvious fear they’re experiencing as they watch the streets they live on descend into war zones. Right now, the thought of even loading up GTA IV ties my stomach in knots.

So Kicking Pigeons is on hold. Not for long, I hope — all being well events will begin to calm as the pressure tap loses steam, and I’ll be back to running around a make-believe city like a twerp before you know it.

Until then I’ll focus on other posts for the blog. Nice posts, ones that remind us that, although we may make our homes on tectonic plates floating upon oceans of chaos, and though a single crack can bring geysers of magma spewing forth, our homes themselves should be places of joy and happiness.

I don’t want to game in isolation from the outside world, but I do want to carry on gaming, and writing about my exploits. I hope you want to carry on reading.

In other news, I’ve accepted a tentative position as Games Editor for the about-to-be-created Technology section of a friend’s website. I’ll post more about that as it develops, but suffice to say I’m excited/scared by the possibilities of writing for as large an audience as the website commands. Excited/scared is a good feeling. It’s the feeling of life moving forwards.

So, until next time, stay safe, and keep being lovely to each other.

Peace and hugs x

P.S. If you want to read more about the riots, I can’t recommend any piece more highly than Laurie Penny’s “Riots on the streets of London”.

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Kicking Pigeons: Part Four

Hello cherubs and cherubettes. Yes, cherubettes. That’s the preferred plural form for a fictional female angelic being, I believe.

“Cherubette”. It looks kind of like “courgette”, when you skim read it. Why do some people call courgettes “zucchinis”, huh?

Zucchini sounds like a brand of espresso coffee machine, or perhaps a hip new grooming style for your pubic region. “The Brazilian is so 2009 dear, true cosmopolitan women get a Zucchini.”

This is … I’m derailing myself, aren’t I? Derailing myself before the train has left the station. I should be continuing my game diary documenting my search for Liberty City’s 200 hidden pigeons, not debating the phonic associations of variations in vegetable-based nomenclature.

Courgettes are vegetables, right? They’re … squashes? Or … pulses? Just a kind of rubbish cucumber?

No, enough of this!

Let’s go find Nikko. What the devil is that crazy cat up to?

Not much, clearly. But we can change that. We have the power.

Well, I do. You really just get to sit there and read this anonymously. AND JUDGE ME, of course. Let’s not forget that.

So, off we go. I get in the Rust-a-tron 3000 and drive away.

– And I should probably point out the obvious here, which is that I’m not very good at naming things. Though you’ve probably guessed that, as you’re reading a blog called “World One-Two”.

It’s a reference to the first underground level of Super Mario Bros., if you didn’t work it out, playing off the subtitle “Notes from the Gaming Underground” — basically because I wanted everyone to know I’ve read Dostoyevsky. I should have just called it “Bobby P’s House of Gaming Goodness.”

NO THAT’S AN AWFUL NAME.

See what I mean?

So anyway, I get in the rusted-up-car-with-the-hip-name, and just drive. I dunno where I’m going. The methodical approach didn’t sit so well with me last time, and today I figure on not figuring anything out.

I drive to the affluent suburban community of Beach Gate. The reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got … THE CAR WITH NO NAME?

The Car with No Name, yeah? No? No. Oh well.

The peaceful little neighbourhood is the picture of Sunday afternoon tranquility. Cheap Mexican labourers water pristine lawns; sports cars and gas-guzzling SUVs rest in terracotta driveways; advertising executives and movie moguls and international arms dealers lounge around in tracksuits, reading newspapers and discussing their next corporate buyouts. It’s the American Dream in action.

What’s this? A quaint gathering of friends around the picnic table. I think they’re a book group. They look like a book group.

“Have you read Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter?” I ask them. “I know it’s about gaming, but it’s actually an erudite and moving account of –“

“– Wait, where are you going? Come back! The New York Times loved it!”

Why do people always do that to me?

I wander off and stare out to sea pensively. Look at this incredible world I’m exploring. The wrecked cars on the rocks under the broken fence. The steps down to the lonely pier, jutting bravely into an open ocean glimmering with untold potential.

This virtual land, existing only as blocks of light on a screen, lines of code, sequences of electrical impulses — it’s a breathtaking achievement, and one I wish more people saw the true significance of.

Sure, blasting space mutants, grappling orcs, rescuing your buddy from the downed chopper — these are all crude garnishings, simplistic attempts at colour betraying the industry’s birth from within the minds of programmers and engineers with limited creative touchstones to draw upon. But the form itself, the quivering, white-hot ideal at its centre — it’s something exciting, something so new and bizarre we don’t even really know what it is yet. The next few decades are going to be an incredible time for videogames, I’m certain of it.

To illustrate that point here is a six-hour Powerpoint presentation, complete with numerous pie charts and technical diagrams, of which I shall now –

– Oh look, a pigeon.

Umm, what were we talking about? Never mind.

I shoot the fucker post-haste and get back in my car and drive away. I can’t stay in the suburbs any longer or I’m going to, like, drown in ennui, and need the largest ever toffeemochachino from Starbucks to cheer myself up.

It’s getting late, and dark clouds are amassing.

I hit the freeway (those expensive-ways were getting tiring) as the first drops of rain begin to fall.

… Did you like my parenthetical joke about freeways there by the way?

You barely noticed it, you say? In fact it wouldn’t have registered had I not paused to draw attention to it like this? But now I have paused you’re regarding it fully, scrutinising its every facet?

Good job it’s so well-crafted then.

What? No, it is.

No, you’re wrong.

Did you even get it? What I was doing, you see, was taking the word “freeway”, which is an alternative term in American English for a controlled-access highway, and pretending that the “free” designates the price of entry (or lack thereof) to the road, when in reality it refers to the flow of traffic being unobstructed by access to properties or intersections.

Then I was extending the reaches of my imagined universe to surmise that the opposite of a freeway would be an expensive-way.

Freeway.

Expensive-way.

Yes?

I didn’t bother exploring the possibility of moderately-priced-ways, as brevity was at this stage an issue to be considered. Had I the time, however, and I would have reconnoitred this avenue extensively. Saying nothing, of course, for premium-yet-value-for-money-ways, and budget-brands-that-cut-corners-on-ingredients-to-such-an-extent-the-concept-of-saving-is-invalidated-ways, which are whole other stories.

… You know, there’s this school of thought in comedy writing that says if a joke isn’t amusing to begin with, carry on digging at it long enough and eventually you’ll arrive at something humourous.

But I’m not sure that’s always true.

The rain’s really coming down now. I tune the car radio to Jazz Nation. The streets are wet, I could just be in a seventies Scorsese movie.

I instigate some Johnny Boy anarchy.

And patrol the night like a seething Travis Bickle.

Down a tangle of back alleys I find an empty police car. I climb the stairway behind and discover a solitary cop on stakeout, LCPD raincoat over uniform, staring silently into the gloom.

“HE’S OVER HERE! HE’S OVER HERE! WOOOOEEEYY!”

But enough of the tomfoolery. The weather clears, the night becomes calm, and I hit the streets hard, looking for those elusive pidgeys …

Boom, here’s one behind a diner in industrial Broker.

Boom, here’s TWO chilling out way up in North Dukes.

Boom, one on the roof in a nearby graveyard.

Sun-up brings me to Burger Shot for some meat-based recuperation. And what do I find on the land round the back but pigeon numero diez. If my rudimentary grasp of basic arithmetic (and Spanish) is correct, that leaves 190 pigeons to go.

I believe that qualifies for a BOOM.

The po-po, apparently, disagree. A cop car idling nearby comes to investigate the pigeon-related gunshot, so I slip back in the Crapmobile (no?) and make a break for it.

Except the Crapmobile is a touch uncooperative in its handling, and I sort of accidentally run over one of the police officers a little bit during my escape.

The other cop doesn’t take too kindly to this, and before I know it I’m embroiled in a high-speed pursuit, more cops converging on my position, bullets thudding into the passenger-side door and the rear window.

The chase is exhausting. The Crapmobile is a piece of crap, and every time I think I’ve shaken the cops I end up sliding out round a bend and crashing down an embankment or into a wall. The cops tail me all around the island, wrecking my car in the process.

I lose them eventually, somewhere beyond the airport, but the Crapmobile is hurting bad. It’s chugging black smoke from the engine, I need to get it fixed up fast.

And then the worst thing ever happens.

Oh shit. Oh Crapmobile don’t do this to me. Are you doing this because I called you a piece of crap? I’m sorry, okay. You are crap but you’re also majestic, and you’re mine and I love you. The fire is going to go out, isn’t it? I’ll cut the engine and jump out and the fire will stop of its own accord.

I think it’s stopping. Yes it’s definitely stopping.

Oh.

I run over in a daze. The flames are so high. It can’t end like this. I try to put the fire out, but the blaze sets me alight and I fall to the ground, rolling, choking, burning … And then blackness.

I dream I’m back in the Crapmobile and we’re both shiny and perfect, and we’re flying over Liberty City in a cloudless sky. We climb, higher and higher, into emptiness … and then the driver door opens and I tumble out — the ground rises to meet me …

And I wake up outside the hospital, alone.

I have nothing. The car is gone. I start walking.

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A Gaming Education: The Stanley Parable

What are you doing exactly now? You’re … what? No, don’t do that. Put the ferret down. And the margarine. Urg.

Now, go and download this stunning modification of Half Life 2, called The Stanley Parable.

You’re doing that, are you? And as it downloads you want to know what a “modification of Half Life 2″ means, because you’re new to gaming, having misspent your youth teaching domesticated mammals to believe it’s not butter?

Well fine. This paragraph was going to sparkle in true experiential, New Games Journalism style, but if you need to know, fine. In it’s simplest form a “mod” is where you take all the stuff that makes a game run, the art assets and the code for walking and opening doors and all the rest, and you modify it to produce a new experience. Mods are typically budding game designers’ first steps into the industry, and like all indie scenes with relatively fast prototyping speeds, what they lack in polish they more than make up for in imagination.

That’s certainly true of The Stanley Parable. And … What’s that? Oh, you’re playing already? No we’re still on the preamble here. I still need to … Dammit, come back!

Well whatever. I guess as you’ve completed it three times now you won’t mind me discussing the endings and talking about all the stuff that if you hadn’t played it would totally fucking ruin the enjoyment of discovering it for yourself. If that’s the case just nod your head.

Excellent. So how about that staircase, then? The way …

No, don’t worry. See this is the thing with writing. I love writing, I love reading, I love the whole set-up we’ve got going here. But there’s not much of a dialogue between us, is there? I know you weren’t really doing that with a ferret. It was a polecat. And any illusion of choice within this article is just that — all you truly get to decide is whether to continue reading or not.

But not so with videogames. Okay, the player’s input is fairly rudimentary, and the pathways designed in advance, but what a videogame offers in a basic yet tangible sense, elusive to so many other forms of artistic expression, is a conversation.

This is what The Stanley Parable is about. I won’t discuss spoilers, it wouldn’t be fair. But at its heart this mod is the most breathtakingly self-knowing celebration of everything an interactive medium can be — and a few things it cannot.

It is clever, but its appeal runs deeper than that. Beneath the deconstructionist stuff lies this undercurrent of claustrophobia, of dizziness, of — and I don’t say this lightly — existential dread.

Part of it reminded me of this lucid dream I had once, a time when I realised in my dream that I was dreaming. To begin with it was incredible, I was admiring leaves on a tree and the intricate patterns playing out on the walls of a wooden hallway, all constructs of my own brain. But soon this fear crept in — I was awake inside my head. How would I really wake up? What if I couldn’t? I had no mouth and yet I must scream.

A similar horror drips from the windowless, labyrinthine corridors of The Stanley Project. Playing it tightened my chest, caused my heart to beat faster, made me want to put on some loud and comforting pop song as soon as it was over.

It is worth braving though. And there’s also warmth, and humour, and storytelling prowess.

It’s important. Perhaps the most important game you’ll play this year. And you will play it, won’t you?

Just nod your head to agree.

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